by Alton C. Thompson
“Sustainability” has been defined as “the endurance of systems and processes.” From a human societal standpoint, a sustainable society is one characterized by (a) characteristics and (b) activities such that the society has a high probability of continuing in existence—in the absence of external factors, whether “natural” (such as volcanic activity) or of a human origin (e.g., such as the bombing of Iraq).
As suggested above, a given society does not necessarily have control over its future—even if the society’s characteristics and the activities of its members tend toward sustainability. However, it is only useful to discuss sustainability in the “normal,” rather than exceptional, case, and I do so below.
What prompts this discussion is the fact that this morning (March 5, 2015) a friend called me just before 8:00 this morning to alert me to a conference taking place that day in downtown Milwaukee. The title of the conference was Sovereignty and Survival: Climate, Energy, Water, Food, Health, the 12th Annual Sustainability Summit and Exposition. (The 2015 program is described here.) George Stone, an Instructor of Natural Science at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC)—and a dynamic speaker—founded the Sustainability Summit, and was the organizer of the conference. (My friend became aware of the conference by virtue of being a part-time student at MATC presently.)
We arrived at the conference after the “Fresh Water: Life’s Fundamental Requirement” session had already started, then attended the “Sustainable Food Supply and Public Health” and “Education for a Sustainable Future” sessions and, in the early afternoon, a “breakout” session, “Clean Transportation Solutions, Part II.”
The presenters included the dean of the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences; a Faculty of Law individual from University College Cork; the Vice President of Studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs; a producer of a local radio program (“Lake Effect”) on Milwaukee public radio; a professor for the Department of Medicine and Public Health at the UW-Madison; the National NAACP Director of Environmental and Climate Justice; the founding dean of the Zilber School of Public Health at the UW-Milwaukee; the president of a technical college in LaCrosse, Wisconsin; the president of U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development (another dynamic speaker); actor-activist Ed Begley, Jr.; the provost of UW-Milwaukee; the president of MATC; the president of Marquette University; the executive director of Wisconsin Clean Cities; a City of Milwaukee Alderman; the fleet operations manager for the City of Milwaukee; and an MATC instructor. Will Allen, of Growing Power, had been scheduled to speak during the “Sustainable Food Supply and Public Health” session, but was unable to attend that day (he had presented the previous day).
An impressive group, right?
Perhaps, but the presentations themselves left much to be desired. A primary problem with the presentations is that if any of the presenters that I heard had a clear concept of what “sustainability” means in concrete terms, none made it known to the audience. The tacit assumption with each speaker seemed to be that the meaning of sustainability is obvious, so that there was no need to waste time offering the author’s concept of the word.
Given that I offered a brief definition of the word at the beginning of this essay, I feel no need to elaborate on that meaning here. However, I perceive two important questions regarding sustainability, and none of the presenters even seemed aware that these questions exist! They are:
- Under what conditions would sustainability be possible for a given society (assuming the absence of external factors, such as volcanic activity)?
- Can any society achieve sustainability today?
Because I wish to keep this essay short, I will not provide answers to these questions here—except to assert that sustainability is not possible today! Which fact, of course, makes the conference that I attended today rather pointless! The reason sustainability is not possible today—for any society on earth!—is that we humans, led by the United States and other Western (“civilized”!) societies, have so changed earth’s atmosphere, through our burning of fossil fuels and deforestation activities, that we have crossed a point of no return. As David Wasdell has stated regarding the Arctic (p. 14):
we saw the temperature change going exponential. We saw the rate of change of ice area accelerating. We saw the change in ice mass or thickness also accelerating and moving towards zero over the next two or three years. Taken all together we recognise the unmistakable footprint or signature of a system in self amplification or runaway behaviour. It is already feeding on itself, with the water-vapour feedback, the ice-albedo feedback and other factors all combining to amplify the effects of the carbon dioxide trigger which set off the dynamics in the Arctic. In a sense, the human trigger is now almost irrelevant. The feedbacks have taken over. So that is what we mean by “runaway” in the Arctic System.
Note in particular these two sentences: “In a sense, the human trigger is now almost irrelevant. The feedbacks have taken over.” Now if the “feedbacks have taken over,” the strong implication is that Earth System is now out of our control. Some will argue that geo-engineering measures have the capability of countering what we have done, but not only does that seem (a) highly unlikely, but (b) the implementation of such measures could very well result in effects opposite of what we intend, thereby proving catastrophic!
Some might agree with the above two points, but argue that the Arctic is not, e.g., the United States. That’s true, of course, but it ignores the highly important fact that the Arctic is our “canary in the coal mine.” It is warning us about our future as humans—but, unfortunately, warning us at a point in time when it is now too late to undo the damage that we have done to the atmosphere.
And to ourselves, of course. Meaning, of course, that—as Guy McPherson has said so wisely—“only love remains.”
I DOUBT IF ANYONE AT THE CONFERENCE THAT I ATTENDED TODAY REALIZED THIS (ABOUT TO BECOME A) FACT! What a pathetic comment to have to make!
One would think that at least some of those present at the conference would have been aware of two important facts, and their implications:
- 55 million years ago the atmosphere increased about 5° C in about 13 years! This proves that the atmosphere can change very rapidly—can, in fact, increase rapidly to a level such that human life cannot exist!
- The melting of ice and snow that is occurring in the far north (Arctic and Siberia) is resulting in the release of methane—a far more potent greenhouse gas that carbon dioxide—and this release could become explosive. What that means is that at some point in the near future the atmospheric temperature could increase—and rapidly—to a level where human life (and much other life as well, of course) would be In fact, I would go so far as to declare this a certainty!
Why were those attending this conference—and the presenters in particular—not aware of these two points? (From what they said, it’s obvious that none of the presenters “had a clue” about this!) I would suggest two reasons, neither of which is a cause for optimism!:
- All were professionals, and as such each had certain tasks associated with his or her job. Those tasks were not so much ones chosen by the person engaging in them but, rather, associated with the position being occupied. In being, in effect, a “slave” to one’s position one had neither the time nor inclination to acquire the sort of knowledge that would enable one to “think outside the box” in which one was imprisoned.
- In being a professional, one would be enabled to have a middle-class or even upper-middle-class lifestyle, and one’s unconscious mind would be diverting one’s attention from the reality of the threat currently facing us humans—something too fantastic to entertain as true.
“Theoretically,” if our “leaders”—in the United States and other Western countries—had acted appropriately and decisively 30 – 40 years ago, our current “date with destiny” (i.e., our extinction as a species) would not exist. However, given that the factors that control those “leaders” now also controlled them 30 – 40 years ago, it’s as unlikely that they would have so acted then; and even if they would “wake up” now, it’s too late now to undertake the sorts of actions that would “save” our species.